Daron Russell (above) helped Team Philly win the Donofrio Classic for the first time in its 57th year. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
CONSHOHOCKEN, Pa. -- Daron Russell got Team Philly started.
His teammates, notably Izaiah Brockington and Christian Ray, kept the team going and going, straight to a Donofrio Classic championship.
The 57th edition of the long-running high school all-star tournament was a coronation for one of the city’s best over the last few years, as Russell finished with 32 points to lead Team Philly to a 128-85 win.
That caps off a year where the soon-to-be Rhode Island Ram led Imhotep Charter to 30 wins, a Public League championship, District 12 championship, PIAA Class 4A championship and earned PIAA Class 4A Player of the Year honors -- a well-rounded resume, to say the least.
“I don’t look at myself as a loser,” he said, “so I just want to win everything.”
It was the first Donofrio Championship for any team playing under Team Philly banner, as the AAU program (now branded as K-Low Elite on the Adidas Gauntlet) made its Donofrio debut in 2005. In 2008, a team led by Neumann-Goretti’s Tony Chennault and Roman Catholic’s Maalik Wayns made it to the Donofrio championship before falling shooter to Novar Gadson, Scootie Randall and Waterview Phoenix.
Head coach Kyle Sample was a point guard on that inaugural ‘05 squad, where he played alongside current program director Lonnie Lowry, brother of Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry.
“It feels good -- not for just me, for those kids,” he said. “Last year on the adidas Gauntlet, first year being K-Low Elite, my seniors did a great job, and it showed when they went back to their high schools, they had success. Just to see those guys get one more chance to play with each other and play against their friends...it was a good run.”
Russell was the only one of the Donofrio team’s seniors who didn’t play with K-Low Elite on the AAU circuit. Fellow Division I commits Daeqwon Plowden (Mastery North/Bowling Green), Koby Thomas (Imhotep Charter/Robert Morris), Anthony Ochefu (Westtown School/Stony Brook) plus the prepping Izaiah Brockington (Archbishop Ryan) were all teammates last year on the 17U circuit; Sample also had several of the program’s top 2018s and 2019s, including Archbishop Wood’s Seth Pinkney and Imhotep’s Bernard Lightsey.
Team Philly celebrates its 2017 Donofrio Classic Championship. (Photo: Tommy Smith/CoBL)
But Russell was the catalyst all tournament long, and once again got Team Philly underway with four 3-pointers in the game’s opening minutes, helping his team opening up a gap that was 25 by halftime and rarely dipped below 30 in the second half.
A 5-foot-10 guard with elite scoring ability, Russell had been on a hot streak that had lasted seemingly all season, though he’d really turned up his level of play in the Public League and state tournaments.
He had 31 points in the Donofrio semifinals, then bettered that by a point, knocking down eight 3-pointers on the way as well as dishing out nine assists and grabbing eight rebounds in the championship.
“I felt like I was on the whole Donofrio run,” Russell said. “The WeR1 game [20 points in the quarterfinals] I struggled a little bit, but for the most part I’ve been kind of on fire.”
“That kid is a star, man,” Sample said. “Not just the way he plays the game, how hard he works.
“I was up at Imhotep today talking to one of my assistant coaches...and he was in there working out, hard, in a full sweat with his dad. I was like, ‘you know we play at 7:30?’ and he was like ‘I’ll be there, I’ll be fine.’ This kid lifted weights this morning, stretched, worked out and then took an hour nap and came and played in a game and got 32 points.”
Team Philly took advantage against a Raw Sports rotation that had been whittled down to just a six-man rotation, with usual stars Eli Brooks (Spring Grove HS/Michigan), Talek Williams (William Allen/Central Connecticut) and Taylor Funk (Manheim Central/St. Joe’s) unavailable, along with several others. That was a significant disadvantage against a Team Philly squad that went more than 10 deep all tournament long, with Sample able to bring plenty of quality talent off the bench.
Brockington, who recently de-committed from NJIT, had 22 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Haverford School sophomore Christian Ray came off the bench to chip in 18 points and more than his fair share of rebounds.
William Allen (Pa.) senior Tyrese Martin, who will be doing a prep year in New England, led the way for Raw Sports with 22 points. Miami (Fl.) signee Lonnie Walker, the No. 12 player in the senior class according to ESPN, had 19, as did Shipley junior Sam Sessoms.